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If you have ever attended an event designed to raise awareness of sexual assault and abuse, what did you think of it? Did you feel shocked or moved? Motivated to make your community safer? Or maybe it didn’t work for you, and you wished it had been handled differently.
Events on this theme—like Take Back the Night, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, and the Clothesline Project—are designed to build a more positive climate around relationship and gender issues. Many college campuses and other communities host an event like this every year. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, 76 percent of students who responded said they had helped organize at least one of these events or were open to doing so. Addressing any sensitive theme requires us to recognize and avoid certain pitfalls that could undermine the effectiveness of the message. These tactics will help you plan an inclusive and powerful event.
1. Plan early, plan often
Find your people
Effective events don’t create themselves. Nor are they planned by just one person. Find allies who represent different communities within your campus. See 2. Find your allies.
Talk about your goals for the event
What are you looking to achieve? For example, you might aim to:
- Recognize and empower survivors of abuse and assault.
- Memorialize or protest specific incidents of assault.
- Reach people who have never engaged with this issue before.
- Get more people involved in a campus or community program or policy.
- Work with administrators to develop campus policy.
- Build connections and unity among people who might not normally find each other.
Talk about how you can meet your goals
- What key messages are you aiming to convey?
- In what ways can you deliver those messages?
- Who does your ideal audience include?
- How can you engage, inspire, and empower your audience?
Talk about how you can address your key themes
- Create a space in which people feel comfortable talking about their experience of sexual assault or related issues they see in your campus community.
- Hold a workshop on sexual empowerment: What this looks like and how to get it.
- Brainstorm about how to work as a community to create more positive sexual and social dynamics.
- Discuss and rally around proposed changes at your college or university that align with the goals of your event.
- Create a more social event in which diverse people feel comfortable and safe together.
Should it be a Take Back the Night event, or another event?
Among sexual assault awareness events, Take Back the Night is the most well known “brand”. Consequently, some people may have certain expectations for what it should be. But planning a Take Back the Night event isn’t very different from planning any other event meant to discuss sexual culture and misconduct. As an organizer, it’s on you to figure out what those expectations are, and discuss them. What should change? What shouldn’t? Ultimately, what’s right for your campus?
2. Find your allies
When you create a more empowered culture on your college campus, everyone benefits. Your event will be far more effective if people from every corner of campus participate and help promote it. Invite other groups to plan and sponsor the event with you.
Look for allies who are:
- United by a common desire to create an empowering event
- Able to help broaden your audience (for example, by telling an unexpected story, performing music, or involving groups who haven’t been part of this before)
- Willing to take on different parts of the planning. What do you and the other organizers need help with?
Look for allies among different campus groups, organizations, and services:
- Greek organizations, including social, honor, academic, and service organizations
- Campus women’s centers and gender centers
- LGBTQ+ groups
- Groups representing ethnically and racially diverse students
- Cultural houses and centers
- Religious and faith-based groups
- Residential groups, including RAs, peer educators, and international students
- Athletics clubs and teams
- Arts-based groups (e.g., drama, visual arts, music)
- Campus staff and faculty, such as counselors, victim advocates, or Title IX administrators
- Community organizations and services, including high schools
The importance of inclusion and diversity
In a recent survey by Student Health 101, students recommended ways to make Take Back the Nights more successful. One of their most recurring themes was the importance of diversifying the participant lineup and broadening the audience.
“If I were organizing an event, I would definitely try to find a more diverse group of people to present.”
—Recent graduate, University of New Mexico
“I think the most effective message was the number of people that showed up.”
—Recent graduate, University of New Hampshire
“I would do a poll to see what people wanted to hear about most or who from before choosing the speaker.”
—First-year undergraduate, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
“The most important thing I saw [at the event] was a community that actively believed in and helped women.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of Miami, Florida
“I would try to have more outreach as well as include representation from all walks of life, including the LGBTQ community, to show that [sexual assault and misconduct] can happen all the time.”
—Fourth-year online undergraduate, State University of New York, Empire State College
3. Set the right tone
What kind of tone and mood will help accomplish your goals?
Take Back the Night and similar events can take different moods. An event may be somber (for example, small-group discussions that facilitate spontaneous sharing about personal experiences), or loud (for example, dynamic speakers addressing a sizeable audience).
Include varying stories
Every event on this theme should focus on inclusiveness:
- State explicitly early and often that sexual assault and harassment affect many different kinds of people and do not necessarily conform to a familiar narrative.
- Everyone whose life has been affected by sexual misconduct has their own story. Your event will become more powerful when different people share different stories.
Plan a cohesive itinerary
Any single event can involve several activities. How will the line-up and order of these various elements affect your audience’s emotional experience?
Find an MC
At the event, you will need to make clear who’s helping to guide it. Your MC is not there to dominate the event, but to set the right tone and keep things going smoothly. Consider:
- Who would establish that inclusive tone and messaging?
- Who can deal with things not going according to plan?
- Who might think about how the order of speakers or subjects could open up the event to certain conversations? These themes might include intimate partner violence, catcalling, people becoming sexually active after bad experiences, or what’s important in your campus community.
Anticipate and address possible ethical and legal implications
- Your speakers should be ready and able to convey their experience and message in an effective way. There is always the possibility of unsupportive responses from the audience.
- All organizers should be aware of potential legal liabilities, confidentiality issues, and risk management issues. These can be effectively managed.
- Ask speakers not to share the names or identifying features of alleged perpetrators.
- Talk with your Title IX Coordinator in advance about what happens if a participant discloses an assault. Some faculty and staff are obligated in some circumstances to report possible incidents of sexual assault, and they may attend your event.
- Consider your policy on filming or recording the event. It’s not unreasonable to ask people to turn off their cell phones.
- Talk with your fellow organizers about possible media coverage. If it’s fellow students who are reporting for a campus publication, it might be easy to set up ground rules with them ahead of time.
Link to other campaigns and events
TBTN or similar events can be a great opportunity to plan other educational events and promote relevant messages on your campus.
“My school was really big on normalizing sex in the first few weeks, so that we could have a very open policy on campus. It was nice to hear that no matter what your opinions are on having sex you were going to be accepted.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Sarah Lawrence College, New York
Set the mood through a cohesive itinerary
“The event featured an improv group. The way they did things by trying to keep the mood light helped me learn about sexual assault prevention better.”
—First-year undergraduate, Johnson & Wales University, Rhode Island
“It’s a serious topic but it doesn’t have to be a talked about in an angry manner. Don’t spout a cause, try to have a conversation.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon
“I think the least effective [element of the event] was using fear messages, because it made people more inclined to look away.”
—Second-year graduate student, California State University, San Bernardino
“It would have been more effective if it focused less on shaming sex and more on open communication and understanding.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Mount Wachusett Community College, Massachusetts
Think about gender
“I was there to learn and to support an effort to eliminate sexual assault of all types, but I left early because I felt unwelcome. Men are [also] victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse [and it is] under-reported because of the stigma. To engage a broader audience, it makes sense to avoid implying that only women get to have ‘ownership’ of this issue and that men are the ones to blame for all of it.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Missouri University of Science and Technology
“Quit pathologizing [people] who are assaulted and start pathologizing people who assault. Sometimes I feel like women are being preached to that they need to do things differently, versus changing the system that allows some people to continue victimizing others.”
—Second-year graduate student, Western Illinois University
4. Present varied stories
Some TBTNs are known for powerful accounts of sexual assault shared by their participants. The last thing you want, however, is for participants to feel their stories have to fit a certain mold. Setting an inclusive tone will ensure that more people feel comfortable sharing their varied stories.
As you think about your goals, you may want to approach some people ahead of time to be speakers at the event. Seeking out varied stories from diverse people can be a subtle way to create a more welcoming space—a crucial element of a positive campus climate in which everyone feels empowered. Speakers’ themes could include:
- Difficult experiences: stories of intimate partner violence or abuse, nonconsensual sexual acts, childhood experiences, harassment, and so on
- Empowerment: how they got out of a bad relationship or survived a sexual assault
- Recovery: what activities, messages, and resources helped them feel like themselves
Diverse speakers and participants
Lots of different people have personal experience with sexual violence and want to end it. Survivors can be of any gender, sexual orientation, or age. Some may have been assaulted as children, others as adults. Ensure that your event includes and supports people who describe and address different kinds of experiences in different ways. Include men and transgender people.
Understand the power of stories
“Hearing survivors’ stories really made me want to be more involved in preventing sexual assault.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of West Georgia
“When they held the ‘rape is not a joke’ seminar they had students read their stories and tell their own stories. It worked. It was good! There was a shift in the audience, like people were starting to understand.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
Think about gender
“The most effective message to me was a rally I went to when I was in community college before transferring. It mentioned how it’s not always woman who could be assaulted but can be a man as well. An actual guy came out to tell his story.”
—Fourth-year graduate student, Park University, Missouri
Include hopeful stories
“The guest speaker was a victim of domestic violence and hearing her story and that she is now helping other women escape their similar situations was very inspiring.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of New Mexico
“I was able to step in other people’s shoes for a moment and try to see sexual assault events not as simply a place to talk about a taboo topic and a super-bad thing, but also as a way for people to share the healing that came after.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, California State University, San Marcos
Make it easier to share
“It was effective to hear survivor stories in a safe space. We were sitting in auditorium seats with the lights very low. Anyone could start sharing their stories without feeling like everyone’s eyes were on them.”
—Third-year graduate student, University of Delaware
5. Make it about more than speaking
Personal stories are at the center of almost every TBTN or similar event. But they shouldn’t be the whole picture. Think of any good event that you’ve been to—even a talk about a serious subject. Was there food? Something to drink? Music? Did the event planners actively involve the audience? There’s no reason why your event shouldn’t have all these things. There are lots of models for successful events. It’s up to you and your fellow planners to figure out what’s right for your campus.
Some options include:
- A speak-out with music between every few speakers
- A march followed by snacks to encourage people to stay for conversation
- Conversation in a comfortable room where people can share their stories over hot chocolate
- Creative projects that address the themes in fresh or surprising ways (such as the Clothesline Project, which uses a display of clothing to push back on the myth that victims of sexual assault are responsible because of what they wear or say or do)
- Workshops or teach-ins on being an effective bystander or supporting a friend
And don’t forget about ending the event! Help your audience wind down and feel hopeful. This could be another opportunity to bring in music, especially something that everyone can participate in. In addition, ensure that people who may need support know where to get it.
Make it interactive
“Events where I was participating rather than just spectating were most effective at teaching me new ideas and concepts. I remember this one event in which everyone was put in groups and we all shared our own experiences, laughed, cried, and bonded. I felt that was one of the most powerful learning moments in my life.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, California State University, San Marcos
Promote actionable strategies
“I think the most effective point I learned was how to be an effective bystander if I ever witnessed sexual assault. I feel it is useful because I will know what actions to take.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of California, Los Angeles
“Focus on behavior and actions that do not support the ideas that possible assaulters may have. Create an environment where it is obvious that rape and such are not acceptable, [where people] step up when that seems to be a problem. That was the most effective [message] because I had never heard of the argument for culture before. Usually such events are about specific actions and preventing yourself from being harmed.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Missouri University of Science and Technology
Find different ways to say it
“I went to the Clothesline Project and I thought that the personal messages that each victim wrote on each shirt were very powerful. Their stories affected me and seemed so real and awful.”
—Second-year graduate student, University of North Dakota
Wind down and wrap up
“The night would have been more effective if there was a debriefing after everyone shared their stories. Everyone who spoke was willing to be open and raw, so it is important to wrap up in a way that alleviated the heaviness. Take Back the Night should end in a way that is productive and hopeful of change.”
—Graduate student, University of Delaware
Provide resources for follow-up
“When I was in the Queer club the most positive thing was that we were able to understand and connect with one another through our life stories. [Downside:] It made you think to the point of more depression, and sometimes to the point that we should have a one-on-one talk.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Pasadena City College, California
6. If you want to keep it simple
A costume-making party
Instead of people feeling like they have to put together a costume at the last minute for Halloween or some other event, and feeling uncomfortable in another sexy toga, you and friends can pool money to make costumes together. Felt, feathers, and paper can make a Robin Hood, iPhone, or any other number of easy costumes that people can feel comfortable and empowered in. Search online for costume ideas.
Have you ever heard hooking up or sex described as being like eating a pizza? People decide together what toppings they’d like. They eat as much of eat pizza as they want. The pizza metaphor is less competitive and aggressive than the old metaphor that sex is like baseball (second base, home run, etc.). To host a consensual pizza-making event, stock up on pizza fixings, get access to an oven, and invite people to talk about consent. They’ll come for the food and stay for the conversation.
Athletic performance and sexual performance
On many college campuses, small groups of athletes are getting together to talk frankly about sex and sports. How do athlete-students think about balancing relationships, their sports, and their academics? How can events reported in the mainstream media be used to help build a supportive campus community?
“The [sexual violence prevention event] that was probably most effective was targeting athletes, due to some of the behaviors seen in professional players. They pushed for men to step up and act like men…Additionally, they talked about everyone’s responsibility to intervene if they suspect or see sexual assault occurring.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Henderson State University, Arkansas
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard: Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Broadway Business, 2010